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Shannon Gleeson and Lorna Hill

High Road Builders for a Summer to Remember

The High Road Builders Award is an annual tradition, which recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to Cornell ILR High Road Fellowships and who educate and inspire us through their work and civic engagement. 

The awardees for this historic summer are two extraordinary women whose compassion and influence cross borders and span divides. 

Shannon Gleeson, Associate Professor in Labor Relations, Law and History, has worked with High Road Fellowships since she joined the ILR School in 2014.  Every summer, she has come to Buffalo to conduct special workshops for High Roaders on ways to link their education with real world progress on critical challenges to local communities.  Well beyond that, Shannon’s research, teaching, and policy engagement year round aims to improve our democracy.  At the heart of her research is the role of citizen involvement in the actual implementation of legislation that grants us rights and protections.  She analyzes the power imbalances that often render legal protections meaningless in the everyday lives of workers. 

Shannon’s latest book, Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the U.S., puts a microscope to one example of the vast difference between the ideals of America and the reality of America.  A sad, familiar refrain here in the summer of 2020.  Shannon’s work exposes the many dimensions of inequality at work and in communities.  She is an expert on immigration and global migrations—focused not merely on policy, but on the people, the immigrants, the migrants.  This summer, she is working with the New York Immigration Coalition to get families out of the Federal Detention Center in Batavia to rescue them from COVID-19. 

Shannon’s research on ‘bad jobs” helps us understand that merely increasing the minimum wage will not fix that problem.  She documents wage theft, discrimination, illegal safety and health practices, and violations of labor law.  Her work reinforces the democratic premise that collective action is required to change those conditions.  Shannon lives, and she teaches, civic action.  She believes that the reason for research and learning is to make the world better.  She is truly a High Road Builder. 

Lorna Hill is the star over the 2020-High Road summer.  This legendary, visionary, revolutionary star left this earthly community on June 30.  Her inspirational spirit will never leave us.  Hence, in present tense, Lorna is a playwright, an actor, a poet, a storyteller, a music composer, an educator, and a producer of the common good.  Lorna is the founder of Ujima Theatre Company in Buffalo, one of the longest running African American theatre companies in the country.  Named by the Swahili word for “collective work and responsibility,” Ujima is a radical collective of creators of beauty and art, spanning generation after generation.

Lorna was the first African American woman to graduate from Dartmouth College and she never quit learning, earning an MA and ABD for a PhD.  She was ever a teacher.  Forty years ago, she taught for Cornell University ILR School—specially designed workshops for women in nontraditional (aka male-dominated) trades.  In those labor education programs, offered repeatedly at the Langston Hughes Center, Lorna taught power, taught women the power that you have in the way you talk.  Lorna taught that equality and justice are not abstract concepts, rather that they depend on our actions, the collective actions of every one of us. 

Widely acclaimed and awarded, Lorna was a maker of justice on the theatrical stage and on the stage of everyday life.  Her Uncrowned Queens: Voices of African American Women brought to life the cultural richness and the wisdom of people overlooked in our community.  In a 2017 radio interview, as part a celebration of Beauty and Democracy, Lorna explained that everything she did in her life was to look for the beauty.  With no rose-colored glasses, and no selective viewing, Lorna still saw beauty everywhere, and she made beauty all around her.  In her art and in her community.  Lorna built and her spirit guides the Beloved Community.  She is truly a High Road Builder.